The civil aviation ministry has approved proposals for expansion of three private corporate airports, in Jamshedpur, Vijaynagar and Mundra, for use by commercial airlines, signalling the restarting of private airports.
Tata Steel Ltd’s airport at Jamshedpur in Jharkhand, JSW Steel Ltd’s Vijaynagar airstrip in Karnataka and an airport in Mundra run by the Adani Group in Gujarat will now join Cochin International Airport Ltd, which, for over a decade, has been India’s only wholly owned private airport.
Other private-led consortia lead airport managements at New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad, but these airports are on long-term leases with a minority participation of Union state governments. The move for new airports comes some weeks ahead of the government’s announcement of a new merchant, or private-owned, airport policy that will allow private developers with their own land to construct and operate airports with no government funding or support. So far, a majority of the country’s frequently used airports are owned by the Airports Authority of India (AAI)— which is also the country’s airports regulator—or the defence forces.
The aviation ministry has already received three proposals to set up merchant airports in Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh, Durgapur in West Bengal and Jhhajjar in Haryana.
“We need several of (these smaller airports). This (shows) there is demand in Level 2 and Level 3 cities to be tapped,” civil aviation minister Praful Patel told Mint, confirming approvals given to Tata Steel, JSW Steel run by the Jindal family, and the Adani Group.
All three business houses, which had been using the airstrips for their private jets, had asked for permission to utilize the airport infrastructure for civilian flights, given a surge in air traffic over the past two years. In the coming months, regional airlines, which are still to take flight, will be able to use such smaller airports.
The airports can now be expanded for commercial use but air traffic controls at all such private airports will continue to be manned by the AAI, said a senior civil aviation ministry official familiar with the process who requested not to be named.
The airport operator, however, will be allowed to levy its own airport charges under an understanding with airlines. The Airport Economic Regulatory Authority, a proposed regulator that will be asked to regulate airport charges and other functions, and is expected to be in place by the year-end, is not allowed to regulate airports that handle less than 1.5 million passengers annually.
The country’s largest low-cost airline, Air Deccan, run by Deccan Aviation Ltd, has already taken a lead in starting operations at the Tatas’ Jamshedpur and the Jindals’ Vijaynagar airports. Last week, it started its daily flight with a short-haul turboprop jet to connect Jamshedpur with Kolkata, cutting down the travel time to about 50 minutes by air compared with a four-hour train journey. Tata has also guaranteed a minimum number of seats to the airline.
The average fare for a Kolkata-Jamshedpur flight is about Rs2,300 (including taxes). The AC-Tier II train ticket for travel between the two cities is Rs800-850. The hangar at the 25-acre airport has made way to a terminal building, but the official said there was limited scope of expanding the airstrip as the approach path faces old housing colonies. Tata Steel is looking for a separate site to start a new airport, land for which is yet to be acquired.
At Vijaynagar, the Jindals now plan to offer night landing facilities to attract more airlines, said Vinod Nowal, a director of JSW Steel. “We have built airport terminal building as per DGCA directive and they have given us commercial status. Since it (infrastructure) is there, we thought we need to connect it to all the major cities around it,” he said. “Unless and until it is connected to major cities, it is difficult to retain employees.” DGCA stands for the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, the country’s civil aviation regulator.
Unlike the Tata and Jindal airports, the Mundra airport at the Adani SEZ will have to set up new air traffic controls, before allowing domestic flights. The airport is guided by the air traffic controller at an AAI-run airport at Bhuj, 70km away. A company spokesperson declined to comment because the group has filed for an IPO and is in so-called quiet period. The airport’s 1.9 km landing strip is capable of handling medium-sized aircraft such as the Airbus A320. It is currently being used by the group’s private jets.